Thursday, May 30, 2013

Perfect opportunity

If you wait long enough, chances are you'll find yourself with an opportunity to catch up with some retired NHL stars or players. It can take place at alumni games or the so-called celebrity golf tournaments. Or, as I like to do, wait for the players to join an NHL team's administration or coaching staff.

That's exactly what we have here. Steve Thomas, who logged 1,040 points in 1,409 NHL seasons (including playoffs), served as a player development consultant with the Tampa Bay Lighting this past season. And, on the final day of the shortened 2013  NHL season, he stopped to sign after the Lightning's final game-day morning skate.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


It's safe to say that these two cards have awaited completion for at least three, maybe four years. But, then, within an hour, on the final day of the shortened NHL season down here in Hockey Day, I got the two signatures from Tampa Bay's Vinny Lecavalier and Sami Salo needed to complete each card.

Honestly, I can't remember when Jordan Caron, who shares the card with Lecavalier, signed that one. I'm thinking it had to be down here in Florida. I'm pretty certain, though, that Patrick Traverse signed the other card before we moved here in 2006.

Sooner or later, I figured the cards would be complete. Just how long, though, surprised me.

Next up: Once an NHL player, always an NHL player

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Hockey Life: Out for a skate

Since last August, about the time Colin started the school year, I began walking as a way to become healthier, lose some weight and clear my mind. For the most part, these walks are a solo excursion, done after dropping him off at school or in between freelance gigs and shifts at the paper.

When time and hockey seasons allow, mostly on Sundays, Colin will join me for a quick, as in 40 to 45 minutes, walk near our neighborhood, the last little stretch along what we've dubbed, because of the many residents we spy, Turtle Creek. Lately, though, we've added another walk to the lineup.

About every other Saturday, once again based on hockey and work schedules, we head off on what usually proves to be the longest walk of my week, more than 4.5 miles, with most of the route right along Coffee Pot Bayou and Tampa Bay here in St. Petersburg. To say that Colin walks, however, would be an understatement.

No, rather than slip on a pair of sneakers, he laces up his inline hockey skates for our trip. With the sidewalks on our route wide and smooth, it presents a solid opportunity for him to get in a little skating. As you can see, too, he doesn't take it easy.

With several long stretches of straightaways, he uses them for sprints. He often skates a good 25 to 30 yards ahead of me and then double backs, so I'm thinking he puts in more like 5.5 to maybe 6 miles by the time we get back home. For him, they're a great workout.

Of course, he draws greetings, smiles and double-takes. Seeing a kid, especially one wearing a hockey helmet and gloves, as well as carrying a hockey stick, isn't a common sight around this area. I'm sure he soaks it up. I do.

These walks, not surprisingly, have more than one purpose. They give us more time to talk. Not just about hockey, either, but about anything that comes up. School. Life. A certain someone up in Etobicoke, Ontario. Family. Cars. Even ospreys.

Step by step, stride by stride and word after word, we make our way along our route. He thinks we're just taking a walk. No, there's more to it than that. Much more.

And that, my friends, is what it's all about.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Team report: Florida Panthers II

Normally, we wouldn't make two trips in a shortened NHL season, especially within a month, for a team like the Florida Panthers. With injuries decimating its lineup, knocking out such players as Jose Theodore, Stephen Weiss and Ed Jovanovski, a certain "Wow!" factor was missing. Still, it was the final day of the season, at least down here in Hockey Bay, so we ended up making the ride to Tampa.

More than anything else, it allowed Colin to get in a hounding session with the Panthers. The Panthers have always been a great signing team. So, of course, he put his time to good use, racking up a pretty impressive team sheet and a nice 8x10 wallpaper from Jonathan Huberdeau, a Calder Trophy finalist.

All told, we added another 44 autographs to the collection.

Signing cards, shown above, were:

Top row: Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc and Filip Kuba; and
Bottom row: Jakob Markstrom, Peter Mueller, Jack Skille and Scottie Upshall.

We even added a trio of pucks:

Signing were, from left, Nick Bjugstad, Huberdeau and Markstrom.

Next up: A duo of double-signed cards

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Don't forget these

As much as we like to use wallpaper images from an NHL team's website for Colin's team sheets, we've found these images work just as well, if not even better, for having a team's player sign an 8x10 for us.

Granted, you won't find one for each and every player on a team, but we're thinking this one for Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau, a Calder Trophy finalist, worked just fine during the Panthers' season-ending trip to Hockey Bay last month.

Now, if we could just do something about that scribble.

Next up: Panthers team report II

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Hockey Life: That was easy

Two weeks ago, we started ramping up for the upcoming travel hockey tryout season, putting Colin through some hockey clinics, spending more time out back in his hockey lab and talking about what this season might bring. In little more than an hour, he'll take that first step.

Going into this stretch, we figured he'd try out for three of the four teams within the Tampa Bay area. To us, we set a goal of looking for the best situation, one that combined solid coaching and a good all-around fit. As much as the next few years will likely define just how far he'll go in hockey, having fun is a major component of the plan.

As we started checking out the team's websites and began to receive emails from organizations, it became clear that two organizations would hold their tryouts at the same time on the same day. It seemed a bit foolish, I thought, to have this scheduling conflict. As a result, these competing times would lead families, such as ours, to choose to attend one of the other.

Over the next few days, we made a good vs. bad checklist for each group. We looked at distance to the rinks, perceptions of each program and, most importantly, the quality of the coaching. As we worked our way through this list, we began to realize there was no clear-cut winner. For every plus, there was a minus.

In a bid to break this so-called tie, I reached out to one of the handful of people within our youth hockey circle whose insight I respect. In a way, I was surprised by what I heard. Then again, especially as I digested this information, it wasn't all that surprising.

The second group's decision to schedule its tryouts, made after the first group posted its intentions, was a conscious one. It was a deliberate attempt to force families to choose, rather than letting them try to find the best overall situation by judging each and every program.

That's pretty arrogant, if you ask me. Then again, considering the people involved, I shouldn't have been surprised.

Really, though, I shouldn't complain. It turned a difficult decision into a rather easy one. For us, that group's way of doing things is 180 degrees from what we're looking for.

So, we made our decision and, in a few minutes, will be making a trip to a rink. Honestly, it wasn't that difficult of a decision. Hopefully, Colin puts forth a great effort and does his best. If he makes this team, so be it. He'll still attend another tryout in a couple of weeks, provided we don't commit should a specific invitation comes Colin's way.

It's more important to find a good fit, especially when spending the money, upwards of $3,000 when all is said and done. If he doesn't make either squad, or we don't feel comfortable with the program, it's something we won't lose sleep over.

Either way, he'll play hockey this fall.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Natural progression

Over the course of his young life, Colin has relied upon team sheets as his go-to platform any time he had the opportunity to hound an NHL team. At first, he drew them by hand, doing the best he could to match the team's logo, or used ones I made on the computer. In time, his artistic talents improved, but then we discovered using printed team wallpaper sheets.

These days, though, he has been using more and more of the wallpaper images for his team sheets. They're quick. They're easy. And with a 40-percent discount at Walgreen's, they're pretty affordable. So, yes, he's given up some individuality, but the reward is when you seal the deal with an item as sharp as this.

Of the team wallpaper sheets he has done this year, I'm thinking this one, completed on the Florida Panthers final trip to Hockey Bay, is among the best, if not the best, he has even worked. To me, the image, as well as the gold ink, makes this one pop.

Among the 23 Panthers players signing it were Calder Trophy nominee Jonathan Huberdeau, Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann, Peter Mueller, George Parros, Shawn Mathias, Jakob Markstrom and Tomas Kopecky.

Still, nothing tops this, a true one-of-one for his beloved Boston Bruins.

Next up: Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Team report: Toronto Maple Leafs

Can't remember why, but I missed the Toronto Maple Leafs first visit to Hockey Bay during this abbreviated hockey-hounding campaign. That's likely the biggest reason why I had relative success, adding another 32 autographs as the team made its way to a morning skate in late April.

And once you add the 23 that Colin scored on his nearly team-signed jersey, we logged the third-biggest team haul of the season.

Beyond the two pucks (shown above) signed by Joffrey Lupul, left, and James Reimer, the rest of the haul came in cards:

Top row: Tyler Bozak, Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner and Mikhail Grabovski; and
Bottom row: Carl Gunnarsson, Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and John-Michael Liles

Top row: Frazer McLaren, Colton Orr and Dion Phaneuf; and
Bottom row: Reimer, Ben Scrivens and James van Riemsdyk

Three Leafs players -- Cody Franson, from top to bottom, Nazim Kadri and Clarke MacArthur -- signed four cards each:

Want some answers?

Drew, an old hounding buddy from Boston, asked me to take part in one of his Wednesday Friendsday online interviews at his blog, Texas Graphing Chronicles. It was fun answering his questions, as it brought back many fond memories.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Nearly complete

Given the number of hockey jerseys that fill the closets of our home, I'm surprised we don't have more team-signed items, such as this one from the Toronto Maple Leafs, added to the collection. But, like most any other subset of our hockey memorabilia, it has to start somewhere.

Honestly, to call this Leafs jersey, which Colin had 23 players, coaches and a general manager sign, a team-signed item is a bit of a misnomer. Despite the numbers, it lacks signatures from two of Toronto's bigger names -- Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.

Who did sign? Well, most everyone else, including Dion Phaneuf, James Reimer, Nazim Kadri, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Colton Orr, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.

As for Kessel and Lupul, it's not as though Colin didn't try.

Putting in a quick session before attending a hockey clinic, he asked Kessel to sign it before he boarded the team bus before the game. Kessel, who can be a little frosty, simply kept on walking, dropping of his luggage and then getting onto the bus, a good 15 minutes before its departure. As for Lupul, we never saw him.

Even without their autographs, the jersey is pretty special to Colin. Mr. Al, our buddy in Toronto, gave it to him a few years ago. We later added the patch, from the Toronto fire station where Mr. Al once worked. I'm sure he'll wear it next summer, when we visit Toronto.

Up next: Leafs team report

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Hockey Life: Mother's Day

For as long as I can remember, the Pinellas Police Athletic League Stars team has practiced, a pretty sweet tradition for Mother's Day. Before a game, either on the day of or before the annual holiday, the kids gather and give their mothers a single rose -- a symbolic gesture of love.

This past Sunday was no different.

Before the Stars' 6-4 victory in the Tampa Bay Metro League championship, the kids gathered in the rink's lobby to thank their mothers for all of their support -- from taking them to practices, clinics and games, to washing smelly jerseys and airing out gear to, basically, being their child's biggest champion. In case you didn't know it, a hockey mom's job isn't easy.

Some of my favorite moments within Colin's hockey have been watching Lisa watch her little boy play. I love seeing the pure joy in her eyes when he scores a goal. I'm proud every time her Momma Bear mentality kicks in whenever a penalty committed against him goes uncalled. And I sit back and nod in approval at the times she has gotten after Colin to start hustling (Listen to your Momma, boy!).

There have been times, though, when Colin forgets that his Momma is his biggest supporter. In a way, though, it's not his fault. He seldom sees her in her finest moments -- sticking up for him when, for any number of reasons, I've wanted to pull the plug on our little hockey adventure.

Over the past year or so, there have been times, based on less-than-stellar grades, forgetting to turn in completed homework for the umpteenth time, a continued lack of hustle or major steps backward in his behavior, when Colin has been told by yours truly that he's done with playing hockey.

To me, the opportunity to play hockey is a privilege. It isn't a birthright. In his case, Colin must continue to earn his ice time, even before he gets on any team, so he learns the value of hard work.

Yet, every time he has faced a suspension, so to speak, it was his Momma who pleaded his case and, ultimately, won the appeal. If that doesn't make her a hockey mom, I don't know what would.

And, that's why, beyond any flowers, brunches or presents that moms will receive today, every hockey player, no matter the age, needs to give their hockey mom a gigantic, game-winning hug and a well-deserved thank you for all they do. Especially, for the stuff they don't see.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Team report: Pittsburgh Penguins

Over the past few NHL seasons, I haven't made much of an effort to hound the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sure, their lineup is stacked with NHL superstars. Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Kris Letang. And, to some degree, Marc-Andre Fleury.

The only problem, for me at least, was that the team brought out bigger crowds, which usually means fewer autographs. So, after taking a break over the past few seasons, it was time for me to deal with any crowd and hound the Pens when they visited Hockey Bay in early April.

Honestly, the hounding crew wasn't as big as I'd feared. Surprisingly, it was downright manageable. I imagine, too, that Crosby's absence, brought about by a broken jaw, had something to do with the relatively low turnout. It made me wonder what I'd been missing.

And though the numbers weren't spectacular, adding 21 autographs to the collection, it certainly lowered any mental barriers I had over the team. The adventure started out nice when Brenden Morrow sign the pair of pucks shown above.

Also signing pucks were, from left, Fleury and Letang.

Signing cards that day were:

Top row: Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis and Tanner Glass;
Middle row: Jussi Jokinen, Tyler Kennedy and Douglas Murray; and
Bottom row: Brandon Sutter, Joe Vitale and Tomas Vokoun.

Also adding to the haul were Jarome Iginla and, much to my chagrin, Chris Kunitz.

 Next up: Team-signed (almost) Leafs jersey

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Slam-dunk decision

Though I sometimes may questionable decisions when it comes to hounding, every so often I like to think, in borrowing a phrase from baseball, that I hit one out of the park. For instance, consider this puck signed by Pittsburgh's Jaroma Iginla.

Likely the biggest name that generated a headline at the NHL's trade deadline, Iginla joined a star-studded lineup in the Steel City. And, as far as hockey hounding is concerned, he only added to a target-rich environment any time the Penguins visit Hockey Bay.

When it came to choosing a puck for Iginla to sign, though, there was never a question about which one I wanted. The fact that he wore the team's third jersey in his Penguins debut was the determining factor and, if memory serves, was possibly the only one like it he signed that day.

So, in a way, it makes up for missing Evgeni Malkin. Kind of.

Next up: Penguins team report

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Living with decisions

One would think that I would've learned by now. Greed, in any way, shape or form, seldom, if ever, pays off. Yet, once again, I failed to take heed of a pretty simple lesson within hockey hounding: given the choice, always go with the bigger name.

This latest incident, occurring in early April with the Pittsburgh Penguins in town, involved one of the team's big-name stars. No, it wasn't Sidney Crosby. He didn't make the trip, as his jaw was broken only days before. The player was Evgeni Malkin. And, unfortunately, it was a major whiff.

As Penguins players headed back to the team's hotel after a morning skate, Malkin was in a group of four walking down the sidewalk. As expected, he drew a crowd of hounds. As I made my way toward him, I recognized teammate Chris Kunitz. And, having a few cards for him, I switched gears, so to speak, and stopped him.

My assumption that I'd have plenty of time to snag these cards from Kunitz and offer up a puck to Malkin. Needless to say, I was surprised when I looked up to see Malkin, in a full-blown trot, moving past me. In hockey vernacular, I was caught flat-footed. I never had a chance.

Oh, well, there's always next season. Maybe, too, Crosby won't be hurt and will make the trip.

Up next:  Pittsburgh's Jarome Iginla

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Hockey Life: Different approach

For the past few Wednesdays, I've been taking Colin over to a rink in Tampa to participate in a clinic run by Stan Neckar, a former NHL defenseman. Like a handful of the other hockey dads there on those nights, I'll sit and watch the clinic, following Colin as he runs through drills and making mental notes of things to reinforce.

Hardly, if ever, do I say anything to anyone other than Colin. I do, however, make a point of listening to the chatter as the dads discuss their sons, teams, leagues and fees. Is it eavesdropping? Most likely. What do you expect, though, from a journalist?

This past Wednesday, while keeping my eyes and ears open, I heard that tryouts would be starting soon for fall travel teams. Of course, that piqued my curiosity. So, when I got home later that night, I started poking about Tampa Bay-area travel team websites. Sure enough, one organization is holding tryouts two weeks from today.

The following day, as I was taking Colin across town to school, I asked him the inevitable question -- did he want to try out for that team. I wasn't surprised, either, when he said he did. If I was in his place, I would've said the same thing.

For some time, we thought it would be best if Colin took a season or two away from travel hockey. Given last season's unfortunate events with the Brandon Jr. Bulls, we were left with a pretty sour taste and a deepened commitment to follow our intuition. To all of us, it was time to refocus on having fun in hockey, something that was in fairly short supply last season.

Thankfully, Colin has been enjoying himself with his Pinellas P.A.L. Stars. After a pretty long winter, and a broken collarbone to boot, Colin has had a blast wearing the Black and Gold, especially after winning today's Tampa Bay Metro League championship.

Despite hearing from knowledgeable hockey dads whom I trust and respect that the next few years are among the most important of any young hockey player's development, we'll be taking a far different approach as the new travel hockey cycle begins. Going forward, we're placing a far greater emphasis of the quality of the organization and the coaches.

That will be foremost in our minds as we make our way through the upcoming tryout season, with Colin casting a wider net with three teams. Even if he makes a particular travel team, we won't commit if we don't have faith in the coaches' abilities, don't feel it would be a good fit (regarding his teammates and, just as important, other parents) or have unanswered questions about the program.

We have no problems walking away if it doesn't feel right. If hockey isn't fun, why bother playing? Trust me, we won't make that mistake again.

And, if he doesn't make a travel squad, so be it. We've come to learn that we can live with that.